Walkers will enjoy more wide open spaces if the new government honours its pledge
When Tony Blair reached Downing Street, more than a few bobble hats must have been tossed into the air. The ramblers of Britain are on the verge of an historic victory. At last they have a government pledged to give walkers a "right to roam" over the countryside.

The landed interests must, meanwhile, have shuddered as they learnt of Mr Blair's ministerial appointments. Set aside, for a moment, Tony Banks, Minister for Sport and left-winger. You know whose side he is instinctively on when the Duke of Westminster puts up a "private" sign. (Will Mr Banks perhaps become known as minister of funny walks?)

The Cabinet is packed with enthusiastic ramblers. One of Chris Smith's first acts, as Secretary of State for National Heritage, was to issue a message to the Ramblers' Association: "Let's make 'right to roam' a reality". He used to go hill walking with John Smith, who made Labour's first pledge to legislate for a "right to roam". It was the former Labour leader's ambition, as part of his recovery after his first heart attack, to reach all the mountain peaks above 3000ft, a feat Chris Smith has himself achieved. Honouring the right to roam pledge is now seen as a memorial to Labour's lost leader.

Meanwhile, Frank Dobson, David Clark and Ann Taylor have all publicly backed the right to roam. Last year, Paddy Tipping, Labour MP for Sherwood, introduced a private members bill which foreshadows action by the new government. The bill was lost but its introduction was approved by 144 votes to 60 - Tony Blair voted in favour. One sign of the Prime Minister's continuing commitment came only this week. Elliot Morley, who shadowed the countryside brief in opposition, was given the same task as an agriculture minister. If Mr Morley carries on in government in the same way as he did in opposition, the "private" signs will soon be coming down all over the countryside.

Labour's pledge has excited much controversy. After all, there are still great tracts of Britain which are forbidden to walkers. In the Forest of Bowland in Lancashire, for example, ramblers have long been banned from all but a fraction of the 37,000 acres of moorland. During the election, some Conservatives argued that Labour's pledge would give walkers the right to traipse through your garden. Michael Heseltine described Labour's plans as "a menace" to farmers. The plans will be fought hard by the well- organised Country Landowners Association, which prefers a system of voluntary access negotiated with individual landowners.

Any new law is, however, likely to be limited. Labour narrowly defines open country as mountain and moorland. River banks are excluded because of the difficulties of offering access. Even cliffs and foreshore - which climbers would like included in the definition - may not be included. Farmland is definitely not going to be open to the roaming walker. There would also be a duty upon the walker to exercise due care.

Demands to legislate for a right to roam go back to 1884, but attempts have always been defeated by landed interests, well-represented in the House of Lords. There has, nonetheless, been gradual progress in opening up the British countryside. The Open Spaces Society, founded in 1865 and supported by several Cabinet ministers, saved the likes of Epping Forest and Hampstead Heath for the nation (Gladstone was a keen walker and once made a major political speech at the age of 83 from a huge boulder in Cwm Llan on the south side of Snowdon). In the 1930s, there were mass trespasses in the Pennines and ramblers played cat-and-mouse with gamekeepers on the forbidden northern moorlands. There were huge rallies at Winnats Pass in the Peak District as ordinary people demanded access to open country.

The battle was partly won then. The Ramblers' Association, led by the then Labour Chancellor, Hugh Dalton, passed the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act in 1949, which, within a decade, granted special protection to the finest 10 per cent of the landscape in England and Wales. Local authorities were given the power to negotiate access agreements with landowners and offer compensation. Kinder Scout in the Pennines, scene of a famous mass trespass in 1932, is now owned by the National Trust. The Pennine Way, from Ededale to the Scottish border, has been open for more than 30 years.

Perhaps the most important of all these initiatives was a decision by the 1945-51 Labour Government to produce a definitive map of all rights of way. This map is now the ramblers' Domesday book, arbitrator in all disputes.

There are, of course, still many examples of rights of way being ignored. Typical is a walk which starts at Harlow Common and heads for the picturesque Essex villages of Matching and High Laver. Once you have gone underneath the M11, you leave the traffic behind and reach tree-lined fields of wheat and potatoes, through which old rights of way forge a path. A pint beckons towards the end of the four or five-mile round trip at the John Barleycorn in Threshers Bush. But long before you arrive there, the ancient footpath hits an immovable obstacle. Beyond are fields and stiles, but instead of pressing on to the open countryside, you suddenly find yourself in someone's driveway. A 10ft wall and a wrought-iron gate, overlooked by a family house, blocks the route. You'll have to go a different way if you want that pint.

This experience is every rambler's nightmare. The map says where the footpaths should be, but they are obstructed. In this case, the wall was erected only in the past few years and a battle between walkers and the homeowner ensues. In others, a farmer may have erected a barbed-wire fence or you encounter a field of rape which is impassable without wielding a large machete. Or the old path along the edge of the field has been ploughed up, leaving a deep ditch as your only remaining route.

Next weekend, the Ramblers' Association will be out in force, holding a "Free Your Paths Weekend" in an attempt to stop such abuses, which, says the association, make it difficult or impossible to use a quarter - 35,000 miles in all - of the public footpaths in England and Wales. Ramblers will be scaling walls and fences and walking through over-cropped fields, reclaiming their rights of way.

But they know that they will win these skirmishes because the law is on their side. What really excites them now is the chance that the Blair Government gives them to extend their rights well beyond the footpaths - to boldly go where no rambler has gone, legally, before.